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The dangers of Turkish-Syria conflict

Khalil Marwan

How events can spiral out of control in the Middle East is illustrated, yet again, by Turkey’s sudden outburst of rage against Syria. Accusing its eastern neighbour of supporting Kurdish separatists, an issue that is exploited by Turkish nationalists at every opportunity, Ankara has hit out at friend and foe alike, warning them not to support Damascus.

Turkish president Suleyman Demirel warned Arab States on October 10 not to support Syria or they will face the wrath of Turkish military might. His use of such harsh language came a day after the 22-member Arab League had expressed solidarity with Syria following their meeting in New York.

Syria has vehemently denied the charge that it is supporting Kurdish separatists and in turn accused Turkey of entering into an unholy alliance with the zionist State of Israel. The Turkish-Israel alliance has also atagonised Iran which sees the Ankara-Tel Aviv axis as a dangerous development in the region, one which is especially detrimental to Islam and the Muslims.

In addition to their differing perceptions about dealing with Tel Aviv, Syria and Turkey also have a border dispute as well as disagreement over the sharing of river waters. Turkey has not only irritated its Muslim neighbours, including those who have entered into some kind of a peace agreement with the zionists, by its military alliance with the zionist State, but even on the Kurdish question, it indulges in a great deal of hypocrisy. While warning Damascus not to support the Turkish Kurds, whom Ankara insists on calling ‘Mountain Turks,’ it feels no compunction in launching raids into Northern Iraq to pursue the Kurds there.

A clue to the latest Turkish outburst can be gleaned from recent American moves to bring the two Kurdish clan chiefs in northern Iraq - Jalal Talabani and Masoud Barazani - to sign a peace deal. The Turks fear that Washington is striving to set up an independent Kurdish State in northern Iraq which could serve as a model for the Kurdish majority region within Turkey. These fears are not unfounded.

The deal between the two Kurdish factions stipulates that they will open a dialogue with Turkey on November 1. It also categorically states that they will neither provide support nor sanctuary to guerrillas of the Kuristan Workers Party (PKK), the group targeted by the Turkish military.

What has most angered Turkey’s military, however, is a clause in the Washington-backed Kurdish agreement obliging all sides to respect the integrity of international borders. This was clearly aimed at Ankara whose troops have been pursuing Kurdish guerrillas into northern Iraq. In defiance of the US-brokered deal, Turkey dispatched 10,000 troops into northern Iraq on October 2.

Demirel stepped up the war of words a few days later when he warned of a possible Turkish strike against Syria as well. This was followed by Turkish prime minister Mesut Yilmaz who said his ‘patience’ with Damascus was running out. He upped the ante by declaring that Turkey will pull Syria’s eyes.The Turkish military added its own voice to the rising chorus of belligerent rhetoric emanating from Ankara.

The Ankara-Tel Aviv military alliance is at the heart of Arab irritation. It is not only meant to humiliate the Arabs but is also designed to isolate Turkey from the rest of the Muslim world, especially Arabs. Turkish grievances date back to the British-engineered Arab revolt during the first world war although the Kemalists themselves abolished the Ottoman Khilafah. Playing on the Kurdish question is intended to create further instability in the region.

The timing of the Turkish-Israel military alliance is also significant. It was foisted on Necmettin Erbakan, leader of the former Refah Party, when he was prime minister in 1996 in order to humiliate him. Whatever Erbakan’s decision, it was bound to hurt him. By agreeing to the Turkish-Israeli military alliance, he lost credibility among Muslims, both at home and abroad. If he had rejected it, the military would have struck and got rid of him. In the event, he was removed a few months later any way.

Under the 1996 military alliance, Israeli jets are allowed to train in Turkey’s airspace and Israel is upgrading Turkish fighter planes. The presence of Israeli planes in Turkish airspace close to the borders with Syria, Iraq and Iran is viewed with great alarm. All of them have expressed concern and urged Ankara to reconsider its position.

Turkish threats against Syria have been taken sufficiently seriously by Egypt, Kuwait, Iran and Saudi Arabia for their leaders and officials to offer mediation. Egyptian president Husni Mubarak, Shaikh Jaber al-Sabah of Kuwait, Dr Kamal Kharazi of Iran and crown prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia have all either visited Ankara and Damascus or talked to leaders of both countries in order to defuse tensions.

While Turkey’s military alliance with Israel was instigated by Washington, the latter is not above undermining Ankara by promoting Kurdish separatism. In fact, the Kurds are the wild card in the Middle East and are used whenever the US wants to destabilise the region. Should the Ankara-Damascus differences escalate, it is almost certain that Washington would play the Kurdish card.

Muslimedia: November 1-15, 1998

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